31 August, 2009

Rock in Cornwall

Let's see: we've recovered from all our adventures, no more jet lag, no more sense of being a cup filled with a cup and a half of olive oil, stuffed with garlic and overflowing onto the counter! I'm sorry if that sounds odd, but it's how I felt for the past two or three days. Now I'm sleeping a normal amount (although I stayed up FAR too late last night on the telephone, perfectly delightful, to my mother in law, the usual thing after we get back from America and she's accepted the fact that we're away again). We played tennis twice today, enjoying one of the most beautiful blue-sky days ever in London: a Red Gate Farm day, really. Warm, joyous, the tennis courts filled with teenagers shouting the score, children infuriating their instructors, couples flirting under cover of "Was mine in?" and "Love all." So we tried for a long game in the morning but were kicked off by people wise enough to book a court.

Then it was off to Westfield for a sushi lunch. That's one of the few things I really miss while I'm in America for the summer, and lord knows if I tried I could find some sushi, but in Southbury, Connecticut? No thank you. I had a couple of sublime bites at the Japanese steakhouse in West Hartford with Jill and Joel. But not enough! Lunch was lovely: salmon with dill, coriander, tuna, a couple of rolls with avocado. We stopped before we wanted to, which was virtuous.

A second tennis game before dinner made us feel even more virtuous and therefore we greatly overate at dinner, but too bad. It was a good, old-fashioned nourishing dinner, cheap and complexly flavored, my first attempt at chilli. It was inspired by the gorgeous dish left for us at Christmas by my friend Judy, and it was she who provided me with the very American seasoning.

Chilli con Carne
(serves 4)

1 lb. lean beef mince
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
1 soup-can chopped or diced tomatoes, NOT drained
1 can each: red kidney beans, fava beans, cannellini beans, NOT drained
1 package McCormick Chilli Seasoning
1/2 tsp chilli powder
loads of fresh ground black pepper
salt to taste
shredded Cheddar cheese
sour cream or fromage frais

This dish could not be easier, simpler, quicker or cheaper. Simply brown the beef in a heavy-bottomed pot, then add everything else and simmer for at least an hour, very low, stirring occasionally. Adjust the chilli powder and salt as you like. Serve with cheese and sour cream on top.


To balance the richness of this main dish, we had John's absolute favorite slaw: celeriac, red cabbage and Savoy cabbage. Honestly, he could eat his WEIGHT in that slaw, with a spicy dressing of poppy seeds, mustard, lemon juice and olive oil.

We're eating our way through a list of foods that Avery doesn't like, so last night was mixed seafood: scallops, king prawns and sardines, all from our day in Cornwall. Tomorrow will be spicy Szechuan chicken with chillis and peanuts. Then... She'll be home! And let me tell you, whatever she wants to eat, I'll provide it. We've missed her so much.

But we can't possibly wish her home early, because she is having the TIME OF HER LIFE. Annie texted John this afternoon to say that her surfboard lesson was a success and she stood up! And then she kindly emailed me this evening to say she actually got a photograph of her doing so! Thrilling. We can say with impunity that the longer one is able to stay in Rock, Cornwall with Annie and her family, the better: at least for the guests, if not for Annie, who must be completely exhausted: 12 for dinner last night, 8 of them children! But if I know Annie (and I do), she is in her element, if also wiped out. She is one of those energized people who gets her thrills from people, loads of plans exploding here and there, meals to prepare, things to give to the people around her. And aiding and abetting her is her delicious husband Keith, who is that rarest of men who is as fond of cooking as his wife is! So between the two of them, course after delicious course appear.

We ourselves appeared last Thursday, after a five-hour drive of first enormous boredom as we got out of London and the Heathrow Metropolitan Area (although it's so lovely in comparison to, say, the JFK or Newark area that I should bite my tongue). Soon, however, the landscape was quite lovely, the Devon countryside making me nostalgic for my writing course spent there in October. Then we reached Cornwall and got excited. Shrubs looking like the seashore, exotic arrangements of windmills dotting the countryside here and there! And then we came upon Rock in Cornwall, a gorgeous, lowkey, subtly luxurious, definitely relaxed enclave on the Southern coast of England. It's called the "St Tropez" of England, or the "Kensington of Cornwall," since apparently only the BEST people go there! We knew that already because Annie and her family were there.

We had no sooner arrived, hugged everyone and thrown our suitcases into our bedrooms than we were instructed to leap into swimming costumes and off we went to the beach! No matter that skies were dark grey, winds were high. No, no problem there! We simply got into the car and went up and down the winding roads of Rock, arriving at a massive beach, stretching out into infinity, with a makeshift sandy parking lot simply COVERED with vehicles, camping tents and shivering British people, all laughing and talking nineteen to the dozen about the surf. And surf there was! White in the distance, the sea filled with leaping and bounding wet people, ALL in wetsuits except for we four adults, for whom it seemed to be a matter of pride to be uncovered and vulnerable. The more fools we! It was FREEZING! We attached body boards to our wrists (mine perhaps a bit too assiduously as, an hour later, my hand was purple!), and into the surf we went.


The whole experience took me back to childhood summers in South Carolina where the surf was about three thousand degrees warmer, and the sun shone, but never mind: the waves were the same, and the body board simply the most fun ever. You wait for the perfect wave (getting it wrong a lot of the time, if you're me), then flop onto your stomach onto the board and simply FLOW up the beach, running into other people, laughing, screaming, generally insane! Simply the most fun you can have in the ocean. Avery had accepted a wetsuit but eschewed a body board, and so her dear friend Emily kindly stayed with her, the two of them bouncing and laughing and getting soaking wet. John, of course, went out as far as he could go, with Fred (basking in the glory of his massively impressive GCSE results, well done, Fred!) and Keith. Annie and I leapt around together, she with a glowing smile and face dripping wet with surf and RAIN, shouting in glee, "This is me, in my element!"

I loved it, until... it was time to walk back up the enormous, endless beach in the WIND, with the bodyboard flapping against my legs. I gradually lost the use of my lips, so just let intrepid Annie and John chat, as Annie's daughter Cornelia dashed ahead, somewhat erratically, to open the car and have towels ready. By the time we got there, my hand and in fact my entire body were purple, I could hardly believe life could be so cold in August! Home, for the most welcome shower of my life. Just heaven to get clean and warm, even if I was a bit taken aback by the various seaweeds, rocks and sand that emerged in the shower from my swimming costume!

Cups of tea all round, and then talk of dinner began, with cocktails and my bean dip, and Annie's special salami, plus olives, breadsticks. The appearance of food always makes me happy. Keith began to get dinner properly ready, and the rain cleared and a magical light began to steal across the landscape. "Keith, darling," Annie began, "I'd really like to take Kristen and John for that beach walk, they have only the one evening... do I have time? An hour?" So off we went, across a golf course set against quite the most saturated sunset against beach that you can imagine, then down dunes into the beach, and walking along the River Camel, a tidal river like the Thames, across which glittered the lights of Padstow. "We'll go there tomorrow on the ferry," Annie explained, and we walked the length of the beach, gathering slates (me, for what purpose I do not know, but I came away with a lovely pile of them), talking real estate (John) and the history of the area (Annie). Finally we came up again into the little town and came across Avery and Emily, ready for a ride home!

Can I just say: we arrived back home to find the table beautifully set, the children already fed with mozzarella-stuffed meatballs, and the adults' plates all set out with a half a steamed lobster each, a wedge of lemon, a bowl of Keith's homemade mayonnaise, bowls of tomatoes, cucumber, everything one could wish. And then, his coup de grace, my maiden voyage with clams! And I am so glad to be able to say, I like clams. Especially when wrenched from the local sand just hours before dinner... I've given you the recipe just as it was given to me, Keith-style.

Keith's Linguini alle Vongole
(serves 4)

Heat 2 fl oz of good olive oil, soften 2 chopped cloves of garlic in it on a low heat for 5 minutes; remove from heat and add half a chopped and deseeded red chilli and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley.

Meanwhile cook linguine or spaghetti for 6 mins til still VERY al dente, drain and stir in some olive oil to prevent from sticking.

In the hot pan, add 2 fl oz of dry white wine, bring to boil, throw in cleaned clams, tip the spaghetti in on top, and jam on the lid. Allow to steam for 5 mins until the clams have opened and the pasta is cooked but still al dente.

Stir in the oil, chili, parsley, garlic mixture till well combined and tip into a serving bowl.


Simply heavenly: tender clams no doubt better than any I will ever have again. It's like my first sushi experience, at... Nobu. Downhill from there, forever.

And we played Karaoke! I have never before, and I would have, until that evening, laid down my life on the argument that John never EVER would, EVER, but I hadn't counted on one essential component to his personality: COMPETITION. If you can compete for it, it turns out, he will. Even do something completely contrary to his personality, which shies away seriously from anything smacking of performance. No, if you can add up numbers and give some to some people and more to others, no matter how idiotic the task at hand, he'll do it, gladly, and more than once. Hilarious! Abba, Tears for Fears, Duran, Duran! Too, too funny.

I have not mentioned Avery, almost at all. Guess why? Once she and Emily were reunited, we were of about as much interest to her as... Karaoke was to John until he tried it. She was so happy, after her summer of adults, to be with her close friend, that we were rendered completely useless to her. Which is FINE.

The next morning found everyone at the breakfast table, eating "eggy bread" (French toast), cereal and yogurt, consuming vast amounts of tea and coffee. Keith reached for a cereal bowl and Annie snatched it from him, pointing with mock severity at the kitchen clock. "Breakfast is from 8:30 to 9:30 and it's 9:30!" He grabbed it back, saying recalcitrantly, "It's 9:28, give that back," and he managed to get a bowl or at least a few bites in before we were all ready to run off to the ferry.

Along the winding road again, Annie pointed out the various memorable homes (one belonging to Jemima Khan!), and I noticed, as I had the day before, that nearly all the house names began with either "Tre", "Pol", or "Pen." Why on earth? Fred, with his GCSE hat on, guessed perhaps these were prefixes like the Irish "O'" or Scottish "Mac"? When I came home I looked it up, and found out that each of these prefixes is the old Cornish indication of "home of," and would then be followed by the family name, resulting in "Treleven," etc. It's a language dominated by "home of," rather than "son of," as in "Hendrickson." Very interesting!

Of course, on the way to the ferry, the skies simply OPENED and we were soaked to the skin, but only on our fronts! The winds protected our backs, and gradually, anyway, we dried off. But my hair, my hair! We reached the ferry with only seconds to spare, to find that inside were our girls, who had left home ten minutes or so earlier! What a delight, that ferry ride, across the river, moving from one arable coast to another built-up coast, and the town of Padstow, dominated by the fishy (and I mean just FISH) commercial interests of one Rick Stein, England's foremost fish chef, arguably. I mean, he would argue it, I think. "Goodness, this town is just overwhelmed by... Rick Stein!" I marvelled to Keith, who said ironically, "Yes, it's normally called 'Padstein.'" There's a gatrillion-dollar restaurant, which we passed and I remarked to Fred, not at all originally, "Let's eat here, just for the halibut," which he repeated with glee and all the enthusiasm of a person hearing a really old joke for the first time. God love a young man.

Then there's the patisserie, and his wife's home furnishings shop, and finally the pasty shop and deli where we retrieved our lunch! The jury is still out with me regarding pasties, which are traditional Cornish treats of a flaky, buttery pastry filled, turnover style, with meat, cheeses, what have you. What had I was smoked haddock and double cream, and while the filling was tasty, it took at least three bites to discover any haddock, and while John's steak pasty was also delicious, the steak was in small proportion to the potatoes and onions. Now, this tendency may be part of the essentially peasant (or fisherman) derivation of the dish, in which the expensive ingredients are less plentiful than the fillers. I wouldn't mind, if I could cozy up to the idea of pastry a bit more than I usually do, trying some other fillings. I thought of a classic "crispy duck" filling of roast duck, cucumbers, spring onions and hoisin sauce. Maybe someday?

We picked these up at the deli and ate them on the quayside, on a stone retaining wall as you see, chatting, peeling off layers of clothing that had seemed so welcome minutes before! Then off on the ferry again, back to Rock. I must say, Padstow was lovely, very picturesque (and the girls and Fred bought massive amounts of local fudge), but I greatly prefer the quiet of Rock.

We went off again then to the beach: the boys and girls to body surf again, but Annie very kindly went with me beachcombing: she to find little tiny cowrie shells to add to her collection, housed in a bowl in her London house. I myself found some fragments of shells for which I have a very special purpose, but I cannot reveal this until Avery comes home. I'm working on it tomorrow. Beachcombing is one of my favorite activities: you didn't realize until you FOUND it, how much you wanted something! We were taken aback, unawares, by one particular wave, and SMASH! Soaked to our underwear.

We met the surfers, shivering and ready for a shower, on the beach, and drove home, then Annie and I were off for my most favorite occupation (next to beachcombing and eating Keith and Annie's food, and hugging Avery, and...): food shopping. This place is heaven. A proper butcher, a proper fishmonger, Dennis Knight, a fabulous cheese counter at one of the local all-purpose shops, and a great place to find little presents for the little (not so) girl on your list, Mooch. I did not get any definitive answers on the nagging question on my mind, namely, "What do Cornish Game Hens have to do with Cornwall," since no one in Cornwall seems ever to have heard of them, nor in all of England from what I can find out, and yet they are popular little poultry items in the United States. It was but the work of a moment to come home and look them up. Turns out: somewhere in the mists of time they might have come from breeding something from Cornwall from something else feathered, but the main point of them now is that they're heavily breasted and tiny-legged, and one serves a person nicely.

What I was sold, at the Rock butcher, was something called a guinea fowl, intensely dark in color, larger than a game hen but smaller than a roasting chicken. Why not? I like things that people tell me I'll like, generally, so home it came with me. It's in the freezer, as it came, until such time as Avery's home and ready to try something new.

We got home laden with provisions, I nicked some rosemary from the ENORMOUS bushes at the cottage (that's what you get when you rent a cottage from a landscape gardener), and with hugs and kisses all round (very tight from Avery), we were off. How wrenching to say goodbye to her! My consolation was that she was deep in laughter with the O'Shaugnessy children, who had just arrived, and the father was giving a rotten but hilarious imitation of some Mexican man saying "there will be no paella tonight," so she was obviously happy and occupied.

And home we went, bereft but very happy at her welcome in that house, overflowing with fun, generosity, great food (they were having spatchcocked barbecued chickens for dinner), love and adventure... Thank you, Annie and Keith. It's great to know Cornwall is there, and something tells me we'll be back.


Anonymous said...

My dear friend, you do not "play" karaoke...you DO karaoke. And only after outrageous amounts of alcohol. Signed, a friend who lived in Japan and unfortunately has great knowledge about karaoke o

Kristen In London said...

Oh, picky picky! And to think we were sober at the time...

Anonymous said...

That was your first mistake =-)

Kristen In London said...

Obviously, it always is!